First National Bioenergy Day receives widespread support and recognizes agricultural implications

CEW-MR-3-Bioenergy day261by A. Rock
The massive New Holland chopper engorged row upon row of 20-foot tall green willow and then pulverized it methodically into waiting dump carts to pile it into hefty heights at the Agens Farm in East Ava, NY Oct. 17. Nationwide biomass trade organizations created this “day of awareness” for a multi-faceted time of demonstrations, discussions, and on sight tours for the first ever National Bioenergy Day.

For regional highlights, Alice Brumbach of the New York Biomass Alliance arranged tours, lunch and demonstrations at advanced sites. These included a tour of the furnace facility at South Lewis High School, Lewis County, ReEnergy Lyonsdale, NY, for a view of biomass combustion, followed by a tour of a local farm to watch willow harvesting at a test site in East Ava, NY.

South Lewis Central School, a small rural school, is on the cutting edge of emerging biomass technology, with 27 tons of wood chips in the room adjoining the 385 horse Hurst furnace. Deliveries are two or three a week and the furnace can run three or four days in peak season. Augers and a conveyor system feed the boiler. In a normal winter the school and the bus garage uses 100,000 to 250,000 tons of chips.

Local loggers have annual bidding, with $35-$37 per ton typical. There is no natural gas available, but they burn fuel oil during spring and autumn when there is not enough need for the immense wood chip furnace. Computers regulate and inspect throughout. There is a fast cooling time and the ashes are similar to talc powder but only fill half of a 30 gallon drum once a week explained Barry Yette, business administrator and Richard Poniktera, buildings and grounds manager.

Among the other benefits are that very little custodial time is needed. Since installation in 2011, the school saves 60 percent of fuel oil costs.

The tour next focused on the “Promise and Opportunity of Biomass Energy” as exhibited by the day-to-day workings of a plant nearby. ReEnergy has a program to assist loggers to secure long term agreements to provide fuel while procuring state-of-the-art chippers from ReEnergy.

The procedure improves the environment while being immune to the changes in weather. Biomass is steady, reliable and cost effective; usually it is one third less than the energy from fossil fuels. No methane is produced nor other significant pollutant. It is a “win-win all around.”

Larry Richardson of ReEnergy Holdings, LLC, stated the company owns or operates nine biomass power plants from Maine through the Carolinas, including the 60 megawatt plant at the military facility, Fort Drum, NY. ReEnergy acquired the plant in Lyons Falls, NY, in 2011.

ReEnergy in Lyonsdale, NY, uses heat generated by combusting biomass materials, which can be forest woody residue or locally grown shrub willow as a fuel through a program sponsored by the USDA and in collaboration with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY.

ReEnergy Lyonsdale notes the biomass to energy industry has several selling points. It creates local, rural jobs for the plant, from trucking and logging. It uses abundant local fuel supply and enhances forest habitat by promoting healthful management and removing forest floor debris. It also burns shrub willow. It provides “homegrown” energy and “reduces reliance upon fossil fuels.” At Lyonsdale, ReEnergy has a capacity of 22 MW. “It uses 750 tons a day of residue that otherwise would be on the forest floor,” explained Richardson.

Lyonsdale generates 162,000 net MWh of electricity yearly, which is enough to power 21,000 homes. The plant has 22 full time workers.

The mature willow at Agens Farm had been planted 5 years before, but generally an energy farm often takes 3 to 4 years. Thus, the next portion of the tour focused upon a very feasible but relatively unknown resource: shrub willow. Amazingly, it can grow where little else can. Willow is usually phased in, with a portion available every year once established. Willow grows in a 2 to 3 year rotation, for a 20 year minimum, depending upon site location and soil fertility. Overall, it is a low input crop, a bio-filter, may ensure the quality of water for drinking; it is successful on a range of soils.

Willow is “a clean, green, carbon neutral energy source with CO2 recycled 100 percent carbon closure.” It fully utilizes the land, provides employment and “Offsets the need for imported fossil fuels.” The Willow Biomass Growth Cycle includes site prep, planting of thousands of small growth, approx 7 inches tall, and then 3 years, usually, for harvesting.

“An advantage is that this willow is grown in a wide variety of climates and grows on scrub land. It does not compete with corn, wheat, oats nor other agricultural produce. Once established, it continues to grow without yearly replanting. Locally, willow is harvested into woody chips and transported to ReEnergy in rural Lyonsdale, NY,” according to demonstration speaker Timothy A. Volk, PhD, SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry.
At the plant willow is blended with regular wood chips after the trucks are weighed and lifted. Steam from the boiler is recaptured and reused. Ash from a ton of fuel is only about 3 percent and that can be used by farmers in place of lime. One hundred percent of electricity is used and “the process promotes the best practices in the forest industry,” stated James White.

Dr. Volk continued, “Here and in Jefferson County there are 1,200 acres of commercial willow plots. The cash flow problem can be augmented by USDA.”

For planting willow, it is recommended that farmers plant five or more varieties in any field. Breeding and selection optimize systemic resistance to disease. Site prep may include spraying to control weeds at the site. Then in the fall, planting willow, expose and germinate the next spring. “A pre-emergence herbicide is recommended, and not Round-up as this will kill willow. Growers must spray over the top. Weed management is most important,” explained Dr. Volk.
For willow harvesting, a cutter works best with a specifically designed head. “A modified corn head did not work. It broke every half acre.” The willow root stumps are the issue. They’re thicker than corn — and mulishly stubborn. The header out front is a unique piece. It does not run saw blades into the ground within its confines. Once chopped into pulp, local willow is transported to Lyonsdale ReEnergy where the combustion of fuel sources creates steam that drives a turbine to create electricity.
As for hybrid poplar, Dr. Volk explained that it “may work in some regions, but in the Northeast, it is difficult to grow; we need a more disease resistant variety.” Here willow and wood are the answers.

Other yields and grasses such as switchgrass, reedcanarygrass, and tall fescue and the use of pellets, which was part of the tour in Schuyler, NY, are possibilities. Research is ongoing at Cornell University and Syracuse; backing and implementation of the best choices are crucial to bioenergy and improvement of fuel sources for the planet.

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